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And Bananas for All
A novelette from Cheeseburger Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6
ALTERNATIVE FORMATS KINDLE eBOOK | NON-KINDLE eBOOK
And Bananas for All, a novellette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 3

The afterlife was, in a word, bewildering.

Mike believed his life was passing before his eyes, because he dreamed he was latched at the teat of a mother he had never remembered. The presentation did not progress, however, nor dwindle into a tunnel. There was neither a great light nor a chorus of angels, but there was something tickling his nose.

Mike sneezed.

As if this were not a sufficient clue, he next became aware that he ached. A resolute corner of his foggy mind decided that sneezing and aching were not consistent with death. If he suffered, he lived.

It was easy to be lulled away from such irksome thoughts: he was warm, he was reclined -- the world was dark and delicious, if slightly musky. He passed on into another valley of senselessness, a grey and timeless place where there were no realities to contend with beyond the rhythmic gulp of ambrosia...

Someone grunted. A body shifted against Mike, then farted.

Mike opened his eyes.

It was the still, quiet hour before dawn: half the sky was spangled by stars that looked close enough to touch while the other half glowed indigo with the threat of day. Between the stars a flurry of orbital machines coasted, gleaming faintly orange with tomorrow's morning reflecting on their armoured hides. The view was both girdled and sliced by the black webbing of foliage in silhouette, a faintly whispering foreground moving in the breeze.

It was the still, quiet hour before dawn, and Mike was being breast-fed by an ape.

He reeled backward and rocked on his haunches, spitting greasy hairs from his mouth. Then, overwhelmed by a wave of dizziness, he dropped to his hands and knees -- recalling viscerally his damaged right hand, he gasped and reflexively pulled the limb in close to his chest. This sudden motion caused a ripple of response in the shadows around him, a change in the collective draw of breath.

Mike froze. His eyes were wide, his skin prickling.

He was surrounded. A wall of gorilla-like figures formed a tight ring all around him. Mike could smell them. He could see their hair matted against the stars. He could hear them snort and sniff as they shifted, prodding one another and nodding.

They jingled as they moved.

The sky through the trees was slowly becoming rosier, its diffuse light reflecting as amber sparkles in dozens of sets of eyes. Mike looked back at them, fighting to slow his rapid, panicked breathing.

The sun was rising, mutually introducing the apes and Mike to one another's vision. To Mike they seemed huge, their cluster tight and ominous, their demeanor one of careful evaluation. He was worried about upsetting them, but at the same time he recognized that it was easy to be deferential when you're terrified. Among mammals emotions are broadcast in the clear.

Mike sat up slowly, aware of his every motion being tracked. He turned to the face of the ape whom had offered him her breast, and two brown eyes regarded him calmly from atop a wrinkled, hazel snout. A pink-faced infant sat on her shoulder, cocking its head at Mike.

Her eyes could have been human. For a moment Mike could almost believe it was an actor in costume. She held his eyes as people do.

Mike decided they were probably not gorillas. They looked more like bonobos, or chimpanzees. If he remembered correctly, a healthy young chimpanzee could easily overpower an adult human being. Any fight would be a quick contest. He gulped.

The chimp blinked at him, then jutted out her chin. Mike stared back. She sniffed, then raised her hand to her mouth in a vaguely claw-like shape and tilted it back against her lips as she raised her brow. When Mike didn't react, she did it again.

He looked around. Another chimp made the same gesture. Mike furrowed his brow, his thoughts coming together mushily. As the apes gestured again he dared to wonder whether it were pure coincidence or his subconscious colouring the interpretation that made the movement seem like the American Sign Language gesture-phrase for "drink?"

Mike blinked. He let out a little gasp as one of the apes shuffled forward proffering something in her long arms. Mike looked down at it, squinting in the feeble morning light. It was a gourd with a hole in it.

The ape signed: "Drink?"

Mike accepted the gourd with shaking fingers, his hand-cuffs clicking against each other. He watched the apes watching him as he lifted it to his lips and tilted it back. Cool, slightly tangy water dribbled out and into his mouth. Rationality was briefly put aside as his body made its demands paramount, forcing him to chug greedily until he'd sucked the last drops from the gourd. Involuntarily, he dropped it.

"Cup drop cup," observed one of the apes, leathery fingers whispering against each other as they formed crude, careless versions of the signs Mike had studied in high school.

Without thinking, Mike circled his hand on his chest: "Sorry."

Shafts of bright sunshine began to angle through the forest canopy. Cool moisture from the mulch floor rose in a mist. The birds had roused themselves to their full polyphonic effort to greet the day. Mike's head became clearer, forcing him to reassess his situation over and over until he became convinced these long, weird moments were real. He was, in fact, crouching on a hilltop surrounded by what looked to him to be chimpanzees who jingled when they moved, and they had brought him here and...nursed him back to health.

Each of them wore a collar, and from each collar dangled a metal tag. The tags were engraved with what looked to Mike to be letters or numbers or both, the shallow edges of the figures winking in the light.

Mike found himself lying down again, slightly dazed. His left leg was not in altogether good shape, and the wound still seemed to be oozing blood. He probed the area with his fingers, wincing. He pressed too close, and hissed.

"Hurts," signed the chimps in sympathetic concert.

Mike almost laughed. Instead, he coughed. It hurt to cough, and he guessed he might have a broken rib or two. Taking a deep breath was okay, so he figured he hadn't punctured a lung.

He took a more sober look around.

The chimps owned this clearing on top of the hill -- the plants had been beaten down flat by repeated traffic. They nested on the ground, gorilla-style, and a few of the nests had small tokens in them: a rotten teddy bear, a plastic doll head, a shredded piece of blanket, a cracked mug with faded hearts on it.

"Where are you guys from?" asked Mike hoarsely, surprised by the sound of his own voice. He followed this with an awkward attempt to sign his words. "Where before?"

"Home," signed several of the chimps simultaneously.

"That makes sense," admitted Mike. "I'm from home, too."

The chimps didn't understand that.

He became aware of a smell, a familiar but unpleasant sting that hung in the air. When he recognized it as burning kerosene he found himself flooded with memories from the previous days, including his arrest and incarceration, his ordeal at the hands of the jackals, and concluding with the recollection that the airplane he was being transported in had been hit by enemy fire.

Evidently, it had gone down. Evidently, Mike had survived. And, somehow, he had been rescued and adopted by a gang of chimps who knew ASL and at least one of whom was lactating and generous with her milk. They were tagged. They knew men, and did not fear them.

On the contrary, they seemed very pleased to have Mike among them. As the atmosphere of worry diffused they began to offer him food: handfuls of berries he couldn't identify, and stalks of chewy grass. They offered him sticks coated in sap holding together a congealed layer of dead termites, and when he hesitated they demonstrated how to saw the sticks across the molars to peel away the snack. Driven by a biological compulsion to feed, Mike emulated them and swallowed three sticks worth of sticky insect crust without retching. As they pressed around him with their offerings they made rapid, clumsy slurries of gestures that Mike was too slow to interpret. He wracked his brains to remember what he'd learned in school.

He carefully repeated his graceless signing over and over until the apes understood: "My name M-I-K-E."

"M-I-K talk!" they echoed back to him amid triumphant pant-hoots. They then proceeded to identify themselves with a series of abstracted gestures Mike strained to assign any meaning to. He caught that one of the younger males had a name based on the sign for run and that the lactating female had a name related to salute.

"You must have escaped from a lab or something..." said Mike thoughtfully. "Or did somebody dump you guys out here? Was it some kind of animal rescue gone wrong?"

The chimps had no coherent answer to that question either. It wasn't really clear how much they understood him. To feel each other out, to exchange words -- there certainly seemed to be somebody home when he looked in those eyes, but on the other hand he had to admit that sometimes it seemed like his dog back at home was following along, too. Mike's signing trailed off. One of the larger males appeared to be industriously picking his nose and then wiping the debris on the hair behind his left ear. The chimps blinked.

Mike sighed. They didn't know any better than Mike did what country they were in, or in which direction he should set off for help. These chimpanzees had somehow saved his life and sat vigil over him while he slept, but they couldn't rescue him.

Mike tried to stand again, but failed. He was sweating. It took him a moment to recover his breath.

"Where did I come from?" he asked. "Can you take me there?"

"Mess," signed the chimps. Some of them pointed.

"I need a crutch. I need a big stick or something. Big stick?"

They brought him one. Grimacing as he fought to favour his wounded leg, Mike hauled himself up to a standing position. The apes looked up at his new posture with a kind of awe. Mike grunted. He felt a trickle of fresh blood paint warm lines down his shin.

The crash site was not far away, but it took Mike a long time to reach it. The chimps were patient. A couple of adults hovered in his vicinity, pacing around him. Another trio roved further into the surrounding jungle, scanning the brush and hooting quietly to one another. They came to an artificial clearing where the trees were burned out husks and the forest floor a carpet of ash. These strips of still smoking desert were concentrated around the many piles of twisted debris in three widely spaced islands -- the nose, the tail, and the mid-section of the plane. The wings appeared to have been shredded into confetti.

One of the chimps tugged on Mike's elbow. "Hot," she warned.

"Stinks," signed another.

"Mess big mess," they all agreed.

"I'll say," said Mike. He hauled himself forward on his tree-branch crutch, headed for the remains of the nose cone and cockpit. He heard the chimps shuffle behind him. He turned, "You guys stay here, okay? It could be dangerous. Hot, right? It stinks."

"Stinks hot."

"Yeah. So just stay right here. I'll be back in a minute."

Gaping holes had been punched in the canopy when the plane went down. Mike passed through pools of bright sunshine as he limped and crunched his way across the black field. He slowed from his already slow pace as the cockpit drew near. A cloud of flies were buzzing around it.

Mike sniffed the air anxiously, which made him feel a lot like an ape.

The cockpit was a mess. Any hopes of getting the radio working were immediately dashed, as it appeared to have melted. There was only one body. The co-pilot must have ejected. The pilot, meanwhile, appeared to have been ventilated by a spray of machine gun fire that had punctured the fuselage in a dozen places. The body also appeared to have suffered some additional trauma in the crash itself, and Mike had a hard time looking at it. Never the less, there was something critical he sought...

Pawing through the largely pulped remains was one of the least palatable things Mike had ever done, but it was all worth it when he found the only slightly scorched manacle control fastened to a singed length of belt. Mike closed his eyes in silent prayer and held the test circuit.

The light winked on feebly.

Mike touched the actuator. His hand-cuffs buzzed, then clicked twice and dropped away from his sore wrists. They landed in the ashes between his feet with a soft thump, raising a small cloud. And then Mike, staring down at them, experienced a special moment.

He was free.

He took a deep breath, watching motes of ash drift through the bars of twinkling sunshine that slanted through the punctured jungle canopy. A million kinds of animal chirped and buzzed. Whether civilization was over the next hill or a hundred miles away Mike could not reckon, but he realized that, for the time being, it didn't matter: his leg wouldn't let him get far in any event.

He looked back at the chimpanzees. They had discovered a curve of fuselage with an oval window in it, and were taking turns peeking at each other through the frame and cavorting. Those on the other side hooted and clapped. After a moment it dawned on Mike what they were doing: the chimps were pretending they were on TV.

Someone, somewhere, had been very kind to these animals. That in itself made Mike feel more whole, a small reminder that not everyone in the world was hellbent on war, on hate, on control and on fear. Someone, somewhere had made a life for these funny little hairy men. Briefly, he wondered what tragedy had whisked the chimps from that care.

These weren't wild animals. Like Mike, they had been tossed.

And if they could manage to survive out here, so could Mike -- at least with their help, he reckoned; and at least until he healed.

After a last sweep through the mangled cockpit Mike was able to retrieve a slightly burnt blanket, a pocket-knife and a wholly intact first aid kit from the emergency compartment. Thus equipped he loped back toward the verdant bushes where the chimpanzees had collected, a cautious duo on their outskirts still scanning the woods for trouble, reminding Mike that he was in no toothless paradise -- like the chimps, he had best stay on his toes.

"Okay," he said. "Let's go."

Slowly the party wound back to the hilltop.

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